What are the pitfalls to watch out for in a military divorce?

By Carolyn Grimes
September 21, 2016

In a military divorce, there are a lot of federal benefits that are available, but it depends first of all on how long you've been married. In order to qualify to keep your military healthcare coverage after divorce, you have to have been married to the service member while they've been on active duty for 20 years.

They call it a 20/20/20 marriage – you get to keep your commissary card, you get to keep your ID, you get to keep your healthcare benefits. In a 20/20/15 marriage, which has 15 years of overlapping marriage and active duty, you don't get the healthcare benefits – but you can have the ID card. There are several former spouse groups out there – Expos is one of them – and they keep up to date on all of these changes because they are often changed.

One thing you have to realize is, don't get divorced and cut yourself out of 20 years. The military counts for 20 years, not to the date of separation as most state courts do for determining marital rights, to the date of the divorce. Oftentimes you have a 19-year marriage, and it's a question of, do we enter the divorce decree now or wait? Even if you have everything resolved, wait so you hit the 20-year mark and keep the federal healthcare benefits.

It doesn't cost your former spouse anything, but you maintain the benefits, and that's a critical thing to have. So that's one very big issue. Another thing is, most military bases, if they're large enough, will have a Judge Advocate General Court – that's the lawyers for the service members. They will also meet with the spouses.

Once they meet with one of you, they can’t meet with the other. A number of them, not all of them, will prepare a Form Property Settlement Agreement. You need to be careful about signing anything, and you should have it checked with an outside lawyer. They don't do contested divorces; they're not there to negotiate between the two of you; and sometimes they'll have waivers in there that you as a spouse shouldn't sign.

Make sure you check with a private attorney and understand that the JAG lawyers cannot represent you in a contested divorce. You also have to be sure to keep your ID card – don't give them to your spouse – if you leave, because the military controls your ID card, which you need to get on base and access the commissary and health care and bring the kids on base for health care. He or she can't take it away from you.

It's regulated by the government as to when you can have it, so don't do that. If you have fault grounds in your divorce – and in Virginia, for example, fault grounds are adultery, desertion, and cruelty – you need to be careful about when or if you report anything to command. Obviously if you are in physical danger, command needs to know, because oftentimes they will address the issue with the service member.

There's an issue that arises very public with General Petraeus’s indiscretions. If a military member commits adultery, that’s a court martial offense and they can lose their pension. Adultery is, unfortunately, not an uncommon thing to have happen, but you need to realize don't spitefully report him or her to command, because you're going to be hurt, too. Obviously you're not going to lie.

If there's an investigation and they come and ask you, like they say, “Don't cut off your nose to spite your face.” Those are some big pitfalls to watch out for.

Carolyn Grimes is a family lawyer at the law firm of Wade Grimes Friedman Sutter & Leischner PLLC in Alexandria, Virginia. To learn more about Grimes and her firm, visit www.oldtownlawyers.com.

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September 21, 2016
Categories:  FAQs

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